MY VIEWINGS of Songs of Praise tend to be rather spread
out these days. After working on the strand off and on for about 15
years as producer, director, and, eventually, series producer, it
was important to give it a long rest, and interesting to return to
it for a health check every now and again. So it was with a mixture
of fond memories and the feelings of visiting an ageing but popular
aunt that I sat down to watch the offering for Remembrance Sunday
What I discovered was a programme strangely lacking in
confidence and, I suspect, money. For no obvious reason, it was a
live show; but why go to all that trouble for an old-fashioned,
traditional programme, based almost entirely in an apposite but
rather uninspiring church at army HQ in Aldershot? There were
several glitches, which undermined trust in the production; but,
that aside, it was just a bit dull.
Remembrance, in some ways, is an open goal for Songs of
Praise: you cannot really go wrong, and yet it is tricky to
follow the magnificence of the Royal Albert Hall the previous
evening, and the grandeur, royalty, and solemnity of the Cenotaph.
Songs of Praise really has to deliver on the next
I can recall magnificent programmes, pre-recorded from
cathedrals in Ely and Portsmouth, and stunning outside broadcasts
from Ypres and Flanders Fields. The only outstanding parts of this
programme were the wonderful war artist Arabella Dorman, and a
serving soldier, Major Rob Hoey, both of whom were in pre-recorded
features. There was nothing wrong with the programme (although why
Michael Ball had to sing the whole of "Abide with me" on his own in
front of the congregation is a mystery), but it lacked the courage
of its convictions and, probably, the money to do anything more
For several years, religion has been losing its bottle in
broadcasting. When I left the BBC, it came as a surprise to me,
therefore, that, in the real world, religion is being taken very
seriously indeed. I am now involved with "religious literacy"
training, working in partnership with some commercial and
governmental institutions who have recognised that you can no
longer not "do God", and are striving to help religion to become an
asset to society rather than the liability it so often is.
Religious broadcasting should be playing its part in this
much-needed re-education. But, if it fails, at least it is good to
know that, in one or two other parts of the BBC, religion is still
considered interesting and important. Meandering through daytime TV
the other day, I found an edition of Flog It! (BBC 1) from
Bristol, where Paul Martin was, as usual, encouraging people to
sell their antiques.
Halfway through the programme, however, we were taken to the New
Room, in the city centre, the oldest Methodist chapel in the world,
and we heard a short extract from one of Wesley's sermons,
delivered in character by the actor Mark Topping.
It was full of facts and insight: the services started at 5 a.m.
so that the labourers could attend before work; Wesley was good
friends with Josiah Wedgewood, etc. It was a perfect example of
well-informed commentary about religion.